Strike up a conversation with John and Sandy Bolin, and you might think you were chatting with a pair of Berea College alums. They were drawn to Berea after learning about its history, particularly the commitment to first-generation college students and providing an interracial education.
“Gosh, we just always thought the mission of the college was the best ever,” Sandy said, “and one of the few places in the United States that was actually serving the kinds of students we have.”
The truth is, the Bolins met at Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan. While there, they both traveled abroad as part of the college’s foreign study program. John went to Germany and Sandy went to France. The experiences never left them. They married in 1965 and went to graduate school at the University of Michigan. John studied theatre and Sandy earned a master’s degree in English literature. His search for a job teaching theatre led him to Berea in 1970, and the two settled into Kentucky life. After a few years, John was elevated to a position leading the theatre program. Sandy joined the program as a costumer.
“The day before we were supposed to start, the Tabernacle burned,” Sandy recalled. “That was the old theatre on the site of the current theatre. It was an old, old building made of wood, and full of bad wiring and rats and all sorts of things. It burned in the middle of the night.”
Lost in the fire was a century-old costume collection Sandy had been eager to work with, but not the Bolins’ desire to support Berea. The College built a new theatre, and the Theatre Department found a temporary space on the second floor of Phelps Stokes Chapel. Sandy worked there as a costumer for a year and a half and eventually started teaching at the college part time. She became full time in the early 1980s, before eventually leaving to attend law school.
John left Berea in 2009, but the couple’s attachment to Berea remained. They established a foreign-study fund for students, along with the Bolin-Blaine Memorial Scholarship Fund. They wanted to share their passion for travel with others and assist students in traveling abroad and experiencing other cultures.
“I think it is essential for people to get out of their countries and their comfort zones, and see how other people live,” Sandy said.
Through the Bolins’ generosity, more than two dozen Berea students have transformed their lives on trips to India, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, and Turkey.
John and Sandy find joy in learning all the ways their contributions are benefiting students.
“I love getting the reports of where students have gone and the things they’ve done with the money,” Sandy said. “We’re just really happy to be a part of the whole philosophy of Berea College.”